, Volume 25, Issue 2, pp 225–227 | Cite as

Building biophysics in China

Christine Yi Lai Luk: A history of biophysics in contemporary China. Dordrecht: Springer, 2015, xvii+90pp, $54.99 PB
Book Review

This book explores the history of biophysics in contemporary China from three particular angles: the early scientific work of Bei Shizhang (who is often lauded as the founding father of biophysics in China), the institutional infrastructure of biophysics, and the disciplinary origins of biophysics in China’s space program. As the selection of entry points makes readily apparent, this study builds on and extends a healthy body of literature in the history of science that considers the development of scientific disciplines in terms of social, political, and economic factors. Indeed, on the second page, Luk cites Robert Kohler as a pioneer of this historiographical approach and asserts her central thesis as follows: “the Chinese experience of building biophysics by launching rockets is one of the many ways that gives a concrete meaning to biophysics” (2). This approach, supported by a rich base of both published and archival sources, enables Luk to narrate a history of biophysics that is at once tangible, elegant, and lucid, overcoming the discipline’s intrinsic problem of lacking definitional specificity.

The succinct monograph comprises five chapters, including an introductory and a concluding chapter. The second chapter investigates the scientific output of Bei in the Republican period (1911–1949). The major intellectual influences on Bei at this juncture came from two foreign scientists: Wilhelm Harms, his Ph.D. advisor in Germany and one of the earliest surgeons in sex reassignment operations, and later the Soviet biologist Olga Borisovna Lepeshinskaya. Luk argues that Harms’ interest in sex transformation and germ layers “left an indelible mark” (22) on Bei and was “the key to unlock Bei’s philosophical foundation” (21). Specifically, in the 1930s, Bei formulated a theory of cell reformation, according to which cells could be reproduced by means other than cell division (e.g., sex transformation through the deformation and reformation of cellular contents outside the cytoplasm). According to Luk, Bei’s attention to sex metamorphosis as opposed to, say, the structural and functional aspects of an organism and his development of such a distinct cellular interpretation are indebted to his advisor’s enduring interest in sex determination and reassignment.

Bei’s theory of cell reformulation was not popularly received, however. When he formally introduced the theory to the scientific community in the 1940s, Bei did not follow the fate of his Soviet counterpart Lepeshinskaya, who rose to stardom under the careful political stewardship of Stalin. Nevertheless, Luk’s analysis stresses a layer of connection between Bei and Lepeshinskaya that went deeper than scientific networking and political struggles, namely their shared intellectual curiosity about cellular continuity from the past to the future. Bei’s postulation that new cell materials arose out of existing ones fitted nicely with the growing Marxist-Maoist perspective that placed the “origins of life” in the framework of dialectical materialism. The subsequent disputation and controversies surrounding Bei’s scientific pursuit further corroborated the political nature of cytological research in communist states such as the Soviet Union and China.

The third chapter looks at how the institutional infrastructure of biophysics grew over time. The chapter focuses in particular on the research establishment, educational system, specialized journals, and professional society of biophysics in post-1949 China. It is also from this point on in the book that the role of Bei’s political leverage in shaping Chinese biophysics becomes increasingly pronounced. For instance, Bei’s political sway in the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) played an instrumental role in establishing the Institute for Biophysics at the CAS in 1958. The institutional leverage of the leading biophysicists was also conducive to creating specialized study programs in biophysics at the University of Science and Technology of China, which fell under the jurisdiction of the CAS. In addition to the establishment of a pivotal research institute and education system, scientists also drew on their political credentials to organize professional communication and, above all, found the journal Progress in Biochemistry and Biophysics (PIBB) in 1974 in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. Finally, in the early post-Mao reform era, the formalization of the Biophysical Society of China reflected a shift in the concerns of Chinese biophysicists from state-led missions to cultivating a collective sense of professional identity. Between the 1950s and 1980s, the growing institutional infrastructure of biophysics in China not only correlated with the changing political context, but also depended heavily on the good political standing of its key architects. This once again supports Luk’s argument that the history of Chinese biophysics must be assessed in terms of socio-political variables.

The fourth chapter zooms in on the period between 1958 and 1966 to investigate the construction of biophysical activities through the launching of biological rockets. In many ways, the analysis in this chapter makes a valuable contribution to the existing literature on the material epistemology of science. Through the lens of technology, Luk discusses how biophysicists negotiated their roles in the space program. As mentioned earlier, this was a period during which leading biophysicists like Bei were invested in driving the disciplinary growth of biophysics through the completion of state-led missions. On the one hand, biophysicists actively participated in Mission 581, a satellite launch project that the Chinese government initiated in 1958, by shouldering the responsibility of launching biological sounding rockets (i.e., rockets that carry biological payloads into space). On the other hand, in cooperating with military officers in the defense ministry, biophysicists received the financial support and political legitimacy that allowed their discipline to flourish. This civilian-military complex demonstrates how biophysicists made their expertise pertinent to the space program in an evolving relationship between science and the state.

In conclusion, Luk deduces two overarching insights from her study of the history of biophysics in the People’s Republic of China. First, the political authority of its leading scientists stands out as a preeminent factor in shaping the field’s configuration over time. Second, “the history of biophysics in China seems to be largely a service discipline for the space program without significant contribution to the production of scientific knowledge” (87). This latter observation presents a fertile ground for expansion in the future. Indeed, the intellectual foundations and conceptual transformations of biophysics are largely missing from the discussion of institutional building in the latter two-thirds of the book. Perhaps a more systematic and comprehensive analysis of the content of PIBB would enable some mapping or synthesis of the major intellectual trends and patterns in Chinese biophysics. Nevertheless, as the first study of its kind, Luk’s book represents an important step in enriching our understanding of the history of this scientific discipline outside the conventional paradigm of the modern West.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HistoryUniversity of WarwickCoventryUK

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